Annie Baker’s John examines the costs of misjudging how long to stay in a relationship. Her patient eye with seemingly minor moments–the almost invisible skirmishes that dot the battlefield of a relationship–can make you wonder why nothing seems to be happening on stage at times. But there’s a solid dramatic architect at work here.
We begin near the actual touristed battleground of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with a quarrelsome young couple checking in at a rambling B&B. This “old chestnut” scenario is refreshed by Baker’s wry observations of the present day B&B–the stay arranged-for online, living room packed with trying-too-hard curios intended to be charming, the hovering hostess who sits with you at breakfast to give that value-add of personal attention when you might just prefer to crunch your complimentary granola in silence.
Here Elias (Scott Zenreich) and Jenny (Olivia de Guzman) will navigate and save their three-year relationship, or not. De Guzman quietly delivers the goods as Jenny. She actually has conversations rather than performing conversations–listening, trying, hoping, hiding, hurting and being hurt.
Zenreich and Director Dubose have elected to portray Elias as abnormally self-absorbed, unperceiving of Jenny, shrill in his protests of personal pain, seemingly incapable of normal empathy. It’s a possible interpretation of the text but not one Baker specifically indicates. The choice throws off the balance of the drama. It so heavily weights our sympathies toward Jenny that it’s unclear why they ever got together. And while the play ultimately lurches our sympathies around dramatically, the choice to portray Elias this way comes at a cost. Their quarrels and connections could have tugged on our own empathy more and revealed more of the human heart–if Elias weren’t such an utter, whiny pill. But Baker’s ear for naturalistic dialogue is so thrillingly acute, the work stands up anyway. She take us on a painful, hyperrealistic emotional ride, with the hope of wisdom as its destination.
Elly Lindsay is calmly daffy as Mertis, the owner, attentive yet spacey, the New Age-y Neo-Platonist who has assembled this dusty, magical refuge where severed limbs once piled ten feet high during its service in the Civil War as a Union hospital. Now it’s where bloodied relationships go for triage. Scenic Designer Robert Winn really lets the B&B sprawl in the Undermain’s cavernous space and fills it all up with perfect chochkes. The 30-inch wide industrial columns are outfitted in Victorian wallpaper and wainscoting. It’s delightful when Mertis leads the couple way offstage “upstairs” and we hear the extended conversation during the showing of the room.
Baker introduces an elderly, blind woman as an oracular figure, a familiar-feeling device used to good effect here. Genevieve, Mertis’ imperious friend, shares recollections of feeling utterly besieged and occupied by an ex-husband’s personality to the point of causing her mental illness. She provides the long view on where relationships can sometimes be really wrong for human happiness, especially for women in traditional arrangements. Genevieve’s eccentricities also provide comic relief from the wearing discomforts of the main couple’s bouts. Undermain company member Rhonda Boutte’ is well cast. She brings her trademark theatrical, growly vocal variety, a bit like Eartha Kitt giving an oration. It’s always interesting, if not especially grounded, and well used here. Paired with Mertis, they provide an off-kilter yet soothing setting for first Jenny, and later Elias. They can breathe and reflect in the company of the two older women, and revel in an Offenbach aria while quietly munching Vienna Fingers. It’s so simple and dreamy, if only for a little while.